Meal prepping and a zero waste kitchen go together like peas and carrots.
Planning your weekly meals leads to tastier, healthier and more sustainable eating—especially when done mindfully.
Open up that Pinterest board of recipes you said “one day” to and we’ll let you in on our own secret recipe of how to make meal prepping more eco friendly.
Why Meal Prep?
First things first, why should we meal prep in the first place? What are the healthy and environmental benefits of doing so?
- Meal prepping saves time, money, and energy.
Lumping all your food prep time into one two-hour block rather than spreading it across each day of the week saves you time, and the headache of answering the dreaded question, “What am I going to make for dinner?” after a long day at work.
And because you’ll eat more controlled pre-arranged portions you’ll be less tempted to order take-out, which will also save you money.
- Meal prepping helps you eat healthier.
We live in an era of pre-packaged meals, but remember, old school recipes rely largely on whole foods, meaning you’ll eat healthier and produce less food packaging waste from premade meals.
This both minimizes your consumption of processed food and reduces your food's carbon footprint.
- Meal prepping reduces food waste.
Not only does it let you combine unlikely scraps of odd pantry mysteries into something delicious, but it also reduces food waste by removing the concept of leftovers. Everything prepared has a place in your week’s eating routine.
- Meal prepping reduces overeating.
Another type of food waste is that which comes from eating more than necessary, or worse, more than your body actually needs.
While you should absolutely eat until you’re full, it’s important to learn what types of things you should eat more of and what things the human body has limited capacity to process.
Meat is especially topical.
A loose rule of thumb is that the body can only process 25 to 35 grams of protein per hour (though other factors do impact this estimate).
Now consider that 4 ounces of beef contain 24 grams of protein and it’s not unusual for people (Americans especially) to eat 16+oz steaks in one sitting. That’s almost 100 grams of protein, 3-4x times that which your body can break down into useful nutrients.
Wastefulness aside, no wonder the high demand for meat is so environmentally harmful.
We could drastically curb our meat consumption (without giving it up!) by simply learning to eat sufficient amounts.
Meal prep allows you to consider these factors and only allocate as much meat per meal as you can process. This is not only healthier and cheaper, but reduces the environmental impact of our diet.
Plan, Plan, Plan
The first step to any sustainable meal planning effort is to…well, plan!
Thoughtfully deciding what you’re going to eat and what you’ll need to make that happen is a critical step in the meal prep process that’s often overlooked. Contrary to what you may think, you can’t always just whip up a week’s worth of delicious meals with whatever is lying about your pantry.
Planning your meals means listing out every recipe and the ingredients, which makes it easy to create a shopping list of exactly what you’ll need,
That way, you’ll stick to the list rather than let impulses and cravings tempt you into buying wasteful, unhealthy snack-type food—no judgment because we’ve all been there and will probably all be there again.
Once you have your shopping list for the week, it’s time to hit the aisles. Start your sustainable meal prep here by taking a page from the zero waste playbook.
Minimize the wastefulness of your food by shopping for plastic free bulk online stores and buying locally in season. Farmer’s markets are a great place to accomplish both.
If those are out of season, make do with what you can by bringing reusable produce bags and jars to dry pantry staples to the grocery store. If your regular grocery store doesn’t have a bulk section, see if there’s one near you that does.
For meat, rather than buy prepackaged items, go directly to the deli counter or, better yet, seek out butchers who stock locally sourced and processed meats. Take your own containers too.
Ditch the Plastic When Portioning
After the pots have cooled, it’s time to split your bulk food into individual, pre-portioned meals. For this, you’ll want to use plastic free food storage containers.
Plastic not only is environmentally unsustainable (did you know Ziploc bags bear only a 0.2% recycle rate?!) but unhealthy and inefficient. They’re not microwave-safe and risk leaching toxic BPA and phthalates into that food you just worked so hard to prepare.
If you don’t yet have access to any fancy silicone bags and stainless steel containers, repurposed glass jars work wonderfully as both storage AND microwave-safe reheating vessels for on-the-go lunches.
While you’re storing and preserving your week’s worth of meals, take the time to learn how to preserve food at home, in case you want to start dabbling in more long-term preservation methods, like pickling and fermenting. This is also helpful for preserving ingredients you plan to use in future meal plans.
For example, if you bought produce in bulk, as it often comes at farmer’s markets, you may not be able to use it all in one week’s worth of recipes. If that’s the case, keep your produce fresh and mentally factor it into your plan for next week’s meals.
The same goes for excess meat, though freezing meat without plastic gives it a somewhat longer lifespan in the freezer if you don’t get around to using it right away.
Speaking of freezing, be sure to freeze any food you cannot use over the week. Most sources actually recommend freezing food you can’t use in four days, which means you might consider freezing the end of the week’s meals right after prepping and taking them out to thaw the day before you reheat them.
No matter how carefully you cut and chop, there will always be a portion of food waste: fruit peels, vegetable ends, animal bones, and the like.
Just because you can’t cook or eat these doesn’t mean they’re not useful.
Vegetable ends? Make stock for next week’s soup recipe! Bones can also be turned into bone broth.
Start brewing your own kombucha, since fruit scraps are especially useful in flavoring kombucha.
For scraps you can no longer make use from, compost.
Fun fact: an indoor compost bin is one of the greenest gadgets you can buy for your kitchen, considering 7% of total greenhouse gas emissions are caused by food waste. And it’s easy to learn what is compostable versus what’s not compostable.
Final Thoughts on Sustainable Meal Prep
Mindful meal planning is one sure way to greatly reduce your personal impact, but that doesn’t mean it will come easy at first.
Learning to reduce your carbon footprint is a lot like learning how to cook—you’re probably going to mess up and burn some things in the beginning.
Unlike cooking, however, there is no precise recipe to follow to achieve that piece de resistance of sustainable living. It’s all about experimentation and progress over perfection.
Besides, figuring out your own taste and what works best for you is half the fun anyway.